Simon Gutierrez and Scott Ross collaborated on this preview.
The 2016 Red Sox were a testament to both the articulately blunt machinations of legendary wheeler-dealer Dave Dombrowski and the delicate, thoughtful construction of the franchise by Ben Cherington and Theo Epstein, which Dombrowski seems to have worked feverishly to tear asunder. OK, that’s not entirely fair. Dombrowski was happy to keep Boston’s proven young core in place, while showing no remorse in dealing away the organization’s once lauded farm system for pieces to help the team win now. The second-year GM has been smart, calculated, and ruthless.
Widely regarded as the favorite to win the A.L. East, the 2016 Sox squad, did so handily, winning 93 games, and finishing four games ahead of the Orioles and Blue Jays. The team’s success was built on the backs of a fearsome offense and a surprisingly solid pitching staff, buoyed by a career year from Rick Porcello and the surprising emergence of one Steven Wright. But despite the inarguably successful regular season, the Sox stumbled in the playoffs, swept in the first round by the Indians and the ghost of Tito Francona.
Certainly not satisfied with this result, Dombrowski went into the winter like a bull in a china shop, dealing away a pair of the team’s top prospects for a second rotation ace in Chris Sale. Heading into 2017, the team has a formidable front end pitching staff, a potent offense, and is projected by FanGraphs to win more than 90 games.
That said, let’s take a closer look at this year’s team…
The Offense (Gutierrez):
The 2016 Boston Red Sox were an offensive juggernaut that effectively clubbed opponents into submission. The team’s cumulative .282/.348/.461 slash line (Batting Average/On Base %/Slugging %) ranked first in the American League, as did the team’s 113 wRC+ (weighted runs created above league average). The squad also demonstrated a potent combination of patience (8.8% walk rate) and bat-to-ball skills, posting the league’s second-lowest strikeout rate (18.4%). Five offensive players put up better than 4 Wins Above Replacement, led by Mookie Betts (7.8) and the ageless Dustin Pedroia (5.2). On the subject of ageless wonders, you can’t understate the impact of one David Ortiz, who, at the tender age of 40, put up his highest home run total (38) in a decade, along with a staggering 163 wRC+. Jackie Bradley, Jr. surprised pretty much everyone (actually everyone) by clubbing 26 homers and a 118 wRC+. Xander Bogaerts continued his upward developmental trajectory, slashing an impressive .294/.356/.446 and upping his power output with 21 home runs. His .335 BABIP looks unsustainable at first glance, but was actually 25 points lower than it was in 2015.
These numbers are impressive, almost inarguably, but can we really expect a similar return in 2017? For projections, I usually turn to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system, which has historically been one of the most accurate systems, and in 2014, just edged out Steamer and PECOTA in a study by The Hardball Times. You can argue the merits of the other systems, but for this exercise, I’ll use ZiPS, which has the added advantage of being freely available via FanGraphs.
ZiPS happens to be quite bullish on the Red Sox, projecting all the team’s top hitters to come close to their 2016 numbers. Each of the team’s top hitters are projected to take a slight step back down to earth, which is simple regression to the mean, but there’s a decent shot at least one of them beats the projections and takes a step forward. My money here is on Bogaerts, who has had what seems to be a very studied and nuanced approach to development, initially showing great balance and patience at the plate, then swinging at (and hitting!) nearly everything, before seemingly combining the two last year. He strikes me as a cerebral player, who has an idea what he’s doing, and is constantly looking to improve. He’s still just 24, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he slightly improved his rate stats, and beefed up his power production, adding 5-7 homers. Of course, this is blind speculation, and you can feel free to mock me at season’s end if I’m wrong.
Perhaps the most intriguing Sox offensive starter this year, though, is the one who walked to the plate only 118 times in 2016 — Andrew Benintendi. ZiPS is bullish on his development, projecting a .278/.341/.446 line, which is almost unheard of for a player his age (22) with so little playing time under his belt. Benintendi is ranked as the game’s top prospect by mlb.com, and ranks similarly high on other well-regarded prospect lists. Also intriguing, Benintendi put on 15-20 pounds in the offseason, ostensibly muscle, since he talks about how hard it is for him to gain weight.
All of this paints perhaps too rosy a picture of the team’s 2017 offensive potency. That’s because we haven’t mentioned the other cogs in the offensive machine, which come with a few more questions. First off, there’s the issue of replacing David Ortiz, which the Sox most certainly did not. Enter league-average veteran Mitch Moreland, he of the magnificent .233/.298/.422 line from 2016. Moreland, who does have a dubious Gold Glove on his resume, is a career .254/.315/.438 hitter, so there’s some “upside” there. The quotes are sarcasm, people. Moreland essentially replaces the outgoing Travis Shaw, who was traded for reliever Tyler Thornburg over the winter with the idea, ostensibly, that Hanley Ramirez would then replace Ortiz at DH, which he doesn’t. At all. To his credit, Ramirez did have a bounce-back 2016, actually hitting like a first baseman, with a .286/.361/.505 and 30 HR. Which is fine. But his wRC+ was 20 points lower than Ortiz.
So then it raises the question, if Ramirez falls far short of replacing Ortiz, doesn’t Moreland then fall far short of replacing Ramirez? Yes. Yes, he does. The answer, it appears, isn’t as simple as signing Edwin Encarnacion, who would have come closer to replacing Ortiz. No. The Sox seemed bound and determined to come in under the luxury tax threshold, and seem to have decided on a platoon of Moreland (who’s terrible against lefties) and Ramirez (who hits them quite well) at first, and another platoon of Ramirez and Chris Young at DH. The idea being that Moreland would take a seat against lefties, with Ramirez playing first, and Young, who mashes lefties to the tune of a career .329/.410/.589 line against them, taking over at DH. I get the reasoning, I do. But it falls some significant measure short of a David Ortiz.
And then there’s the elephant in the room, sitting quietly in the corner: Pablo Sandoval, inked to a $95 million deal that runs through 2019, whose one full year with the Red Sox was an abject disaster. After posting a career wRC+ of 116, he delivered a whopping 75 wRC+ in 2015, and was hitless in seven at bats in 2016 before being shelved for the year with a “shoulder strain.” I would be remiss if I didn’t mention he was also quite big. Sandoval has re-appeared from exile and is now noticeably thinner. No word on the shoulder, but there is the potential for some serious upward regression, which would please the Sox front office greatly, since the option besides Sandoval is Brock Holt, whose performance to date has been that of a serviceable utility player, and not a starting third baseman on a championship squad.
There is also the issue of catcher. For some months, Sandy Leon was the best hitting catcher in the league. Overall, he put up an impressive .310/.369/.476 line, with a 123 wRC+. Those numbers look great, but they don’t tell you that Leon fell off the cliff in September and October, hitting just .213 over that span. It seems unlikely Leon will repeat his offensive success (.392 BABIP!), but hey, there’s always a chance! Behind Leon, it’s looking like some combination of Blake Swihart, who can hit but can’t catch, and Christian Vasquez, who can do the opposite. Swihart brings the flexibility of being able to maybe play some outfield, so there’s the possibility the Sox keep three catchers on the active roster, but it seems unlikely. More likely, the front office takes a hard look at the two backups in the spring, and sends the less impressive one down to Pawtucket until he’s needed. Overall, the Sox remain in possession of a potent, and potentially ferocious offense, but there’s the likelihood at least a handful of their lineup pieces take at least a slight step backward this year, leaving the team trying to make up the difference with pitching. Which brings us to…
The Rotation (Ross):
The 2015 Boston Red Sox’ starting rotation was “a collection of roughly league-average starting pitchers,” as noted in this space last year, but only two of their six most-used starters posted an ERA+ of at least 100. So they went out and paid dearly for an ace, one David Price, but he wasn’t enough. So this offseason they went out and paid dearly for another ace, Chris Sale, giving them their best rotation since the 2004 curse-busting team. Let’s break it down:
#1 Starter: When news broke that the Red Sox had landed Chris Sale of the White Sox in a trade, the first thought of many fans was quite possibly “Holy s*** — the Red Sox’s third-best starter is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.” Sale’s 26.2 fWAR from 2012 to 2016 was fourth-highest in all of baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Price, but Sale is the youngest, and is signed through 2019 for a grand total of just $38 million – only $2.4 million more than Kershaw will make in 2017. He came with a high price tag, as the Sox bid adieu to stud prospect Yoan Moncada, future fireballer Michael Kopech and about $30 million. Sale does come with a less than sterling reputation, known for bucking management in Chicago on the Drake LaRoche fiasco, and having an unconventional take on throwback unis.
Now, the last time the Sox traded away such a highly-touted prospect for an ace with an attitude, Josh Beckett came to New England and helped lead the team to a World Series title, while a young Hanley Ramirez wasted his talents in Miami. Good luck finding a Red Sox fan who regrets that deal! Incidentally, Beckett is now out of baseball, long since having been flipped by the Sox for another title, and Han-Ram is back at DH for the Sox. Life comes full-circle. Sale’s fastball, which he throws about half the time, sits about 93-94, but his most effective pitches are a nasty slider in the high 70s, against which hitters had an OPS of just .510, and a changeup with a devastating break, which generated a .617 OPS. He’s got a lot of innings on his young arm, but if you look at active players who’ve carried a bigger load at his age — Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Rick Porcello, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, Jake Peavy, Cole Hamels — there’s plenty of room for optimism.
#2 Starter: After the Red Sox dumped a truckload of money to land David Price, he went on to lead the AL in hits allowed, just one year after leading the AL in ERA+. Price was the victim of lots of bad luck, as his home run rate of 3.2% was a full point higher than his career mark, his BAbip was 26 points higher than his career norm, and he had the second-worst FIP-to-ERA ratio of his career. But he still went 17-9, and posted 4.5 fWAR, which was 7th among AL starters, and was top 10 in wins, winning percentage, BB/9, SO/9, SO/BB, SO, innings, and FIP. What went wrong? Well, his velocity for the first seven starts of the season was down, with his fastball averaging just 91.8 mph, more than 2 mph off 2015’s average, leading to his two-seamer getting crushed to the tune of a .784 OPS with 15 homers — his previous high for OPS against his two-seamer had been .692, and in the previous 6 seasons he’d averaged just 5 homers. But his fastball got its life back in the second half, as he posted a 3.33 ERA over 121.2 innings, though the taters continued to plague him. Lest you worry the problem was Fenway, he’d given up just 4 homers in 74 innings there in previous seasons. With some upward regression back to his career numbers, coupled with some possible onset of decline phase, Price should be good for about 5 fWAR.
#3 Starter: It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly people awoke to the fact that Rick Porcello was in the hunt for the Cy Young, but he had a brilliant second half, going 12-2 with a 2.54 ERA and 97 strikeouts vs. 11 walks in 117 innings, earning himself the award and the ire of Kate Upton. Porcello benefitted in 2016 from a plunge in his BAbip from a career norm of .314 to just .269. Give Porcello his due, though, because he also controlled the strike zone as never before, with a league-leading SO/BB ratio of 5.91. While Porcello likely isn’t a perennial CY Young candidate, there’s reason to believe that his disappointing 2015 season was the anomaly, and that last year was more in line with his true talent level. In 2015 his BAbip was .333, his HR/9 jumped from .9 to 1.3, in a year when he threw an unusually high percentage of four-seamers. In 2016 he went back to the two-seamer, took a little off his curve, and saw his slider (which was once so bad that it inspired an article begging him to stop throwing the pitch) develop into a quality pitch that this past season became the “difference between good and bad Porcello.” If you buy the idea that 2015 was the outlier, Porcello could be a 4-5 fWAR pitcher for the three remaining years on his contract, and if that’s the case, he’s a relative bargain at $20 million a year.
#4 Starter: Drew Pomeranz flamed out in his first go-round as a starter with the Rockies in 2012, and spent the next three seasons with the Rockies and A’s, alternating between the pen and the rotation, before the Padres made him a full-time starter in 201, with great success. Pomeranz caught fire, earning a spot on the NL All Star team with a 2.47 ERA and 10.1 SO/9 over 102 innings. After coming to Boston in a midseason trade, however, his BAbip jumped 66 points, while his HR% spiked from 2% to 4.8%, leaving a lot of Sox fans frustrated and disappointed. What went wrong is up for discussion, but he may have been dealing with an injury, or it could’ve been going from the pitcher’s haven of Petco Park to Fenway, or maybe it was the change in leagues, or the unprecedented number of innings… it’s hard to say. Pomeranz did pitch well in August, posting a 2.70 ERA in 36.2 IP with 39 strikeouts. Maybe he went through an adjustment phase, and then kinda crapped out near the finish line, getting a few extra days’ rest to deal with soreness in his forearm. The Boston Globe recently reported that he got a stem cell injection in his elbow, “Just to kind of get the ball rolling for this year,” Pomeranz told the Globe. “I’ve felt great. Ready to go.” Still, Sox manager John Farrell announced at the start of spring training that Pomeranz is at least a week away from throwing off a mound.
#5 Starter: Knuckleballer Steven Wright started off 2016 by going 8-4 with a 2.01 ERA through 14 starts. But after a 17-year romance with Tim Wakefield, Sox fans knew better than to expect the magic to last, and it didn’t, as Wright made just 10 more starts, going 5-2 with a 5.55 ERA before giving way to an injury suffered while pinch running. His BAbip jumped from .247 to .330, and after giving up 4 homers in 98.1 IP, he served up 8 more in 58.1 IP. The second half of the season saw Wright’s knuckleball staying up in the zone a lot more, which is typically death for that pitch, given the old adage “If it’s high let it fly, if it’s low, let it go.” Over his last two seasons, he’s gone 18-10 with a 3.57 ERA over 229.1 IP for a 2.7 bear. If that’s his true talent level, Boston will be over the moon; if he’s half that, he’ll be a serviceable #5. But, like Pomeranz, Wright’s not yet pitching off a mound this spring, as his shoulder hasn’t yet fully recovered from last summer’s bursitis.
#6 Starter: Yes, the Sox legitimately have six. But here we find yet another Sox starter with potentially troubling health issues. Still, Eduardo Rodriguez has the potential to be an impact arm in the Red Sox rotation. Rodriguez followed up a brilliant 2015 with a 2016 that was plagued by injuries and tipped pitches. Once he got himself straightened out, though, he was fantastic, putting up a 3.24 ERA and 79 strikeouts over 77.2 IP in his final 14 starts. If he can stay healthy and keep from telegraphing his pitches, he has the upside one of the better back-of-the-rotation starters in baseball. That said, Dombrowski has said E-Rod may start the season in the minors, for reasons that would appear to have more to do with roster move options – and possibly weather – than any real assessment of pitching talent. There was some concern over the winter about Rodriguez’ knee, which he “tweaked” pitching winter ball in Venezuela. Luckily, it doesn’t appear to be serious, but he’s also still on Venezuela’s World Baseball Classic team, leaving the door open for him to potentially aggravate the injury.
To wrap up, if Sale holds serve, Price and Porcello again combine for 9-10 fWAR, and some combination of E-Rod, Wright and Pomeranz can get cobble together 350 innings with an ERA+ of 100 or better, the Red Sox will again be right there with Cleveland and Toronto among the best rotations in the AL.
The Bullpen (Gutierrez):
This brings us to what I’ll go ahead and say is the team’s biggest question mark. The Sox’s relief corps put up a combined 4.9 WAR last year, good for sixth in the AL, to go along with a cumulative 3.58 ERA/3.67 FIP. Real middle-of-the-road numbers. The 2017 ‘pen is anchored again by Craig Kimbrel, who was once among the top closers in baseball, if not the very best. He no longer appears to be that pitcher, posting a largely unimpressive 3.40 ERA/2.92 FIP last year. Although his K-rate remained impressive, striking out better than 14 per nine, he also walked an alarming 5.09 per nine. Adding to that, Kimbrel’s ERA and xFIP have gradually creeped up every year since 2012, so there’s some indication he might never be the same pitcher he was when he was younger. He still brings it, averaging 97.3 mph on his fastball last year, which is actually the hardest he’s ever thrown, but something’s clearly not clicking. His key indicators like Zone %, and swings outside the zone have held steady. He gave up a ton more fly balls and harder contact last year, but his HR/FB% was right around his career average, too. What 2017 holds for the Sox closer is a mystery, but ZiPS is pretty bearish on him, projecting a 2.96 ERA/3.14 FIP. That’s not ugly or anything, but hardly the numbers you expect from an elite closer.
After Kimbrel, the ‘pen gets murky pretty quick. Logic would dictate the Sox use the newly acquired Tyler Thornburg in the higher leverage situations, due primarily to his shiny 2.15 ERA/2.83 FIP, and the fact that he struck out a tick above 12 per nine. ZiPS likes him to regress some, but I’m a little more bullish on him. Maybe that’s just the eternal sunshine in my spotty mind but, hey, who’s to say. Behind Thornburg, you have Robbie Ross, who absolutely eviscerates lefties, holding them to a .185/.320/.225 slash line. But then you get into the Joe Kellys, Matt Barneses, and Heath Hembrees of the world; names which inspire significantly less confidence.
Now, Joe Kelly may be the exception here. After the Sox committed to using him in the bullpen, he held hitters to a .180/.226/.240 line in September and October. As a reliever, he posted a 1.02 ERA/2.35 FIP, with 21 K and 5 BB in 17 innings. I’ve personally been waiting for the team to finally commit him to the ‘pen, and in that role, he’s consistently hit 98, with some filthy stuff. As for the rest of the relief corps, there’s a Roenis Elias in there somewhere, and a Fernando Abad, and an absolute dumpster fire they called Noe Ramirez. I guess the light at the end of this tunnel is the fact Carson Smith is expected back from Tommy John surgery around June 1st. So there’s some room for optimism! Right? Look, if you’re asking me, this is a weakness ripe for exploitation, and I’m frankly surprised the Red Sox didn’t do more to address it in the offseason. Maybe they really like Kelly, Barnes, and Hembree. Why? Who knows…
The 2016 Red Sox ranked second in the AL in Defensive Runs Saved Above Average, provided by Baseball Info Solutions, with +49. Individual standouts include Mookie Betts (+32), Dustin Pedroia (+12), and Jackie Bradley, Jr. (+11) Among the team’s regulars, only Xander Bogaerts and Hanley Ramirez put up negative numbers (-10 and -5, respectively). Dave Dombrowski has openly questioned Bogaerts’ range, but also conceded he “did fine at short,” suggesting the life in his young shortstop’s bat more than makes up for whatever shortcomings he may have in the field. Ramirez, meanwhile, will be spelled by Mitch Moreland, who was good for +7 Rdrs. Behind the dish, only Christian Vazquez rated above average at catcher framing (3.6 runs above average), per Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner, which keeps track of framing statistics annually. Blake Swihart (-.3 in a limited sample), Ryan Hanigan (-4.6), and Sandy Leon (-7.5) all rated relatively poorly, suggesting the Sox are willing to trade a few strikes for a little offense. You could certainly make the case that Vazquez’ proficiency behind the plate should earn him more playing time this year, but it’s possible management might think its high-octane starters, Sale and Price in particular, have less of a need to steal strikes than some of their contemporaries.
As we’ve mentioned previously, Dombrowski, as is his custom, has strip-mined the Sox’ farm system, trading away top prospects to land the likes of Sale, Brad Ziegler, Tyler Thornburg, Pomeranz, Carson Smith, and Craig Kimbrel. The more modern, analytical baseball fan may wince at all the cheap young talent being sent away for relief pitching, but the team is in win-now mode. Of Baseball Prospectus’ top 5 Red Sox prospects for 2017, one – Benintendi – is the team’s starting left fielder, and two – Moncada and Kopech — have been traded away. There’s one kid left down on the farm, Rafael Devers, whom ESPN recently anointed “the last star in the Red Sox farm system,” and the man Dombrowski cited as the one who made trading away Moncada bearable. Over his final 455 plate appearances last year, Devers hit .310 with 28 doubles, 8 triples, 9 home runs and an .831 OPS, despite being, at 19, 3.5 years younger than the average Carolina League player. But at his age, he’s realistically at least a year or two away from making some noise in Fenway. The other top 5 farmhand is 6’ 6” lefty Jason Groome, who fanned 10 in 6.2 IP last summer Rookie ball, and won’t be old enough to order a drink until after the 2019 trading deadline. Finally, there’s Sam Travis, the first base prospect whose 2016 was derailed by a torn ACL. Dombrowski has said that the team’s belief in Travis was part of what kept them from signing a free agent first basemen. After watching the farm system crank out Betts, Bradley, Bogaerts, Benintendi, and Rodriguez in short order, Sox fans are going to have to temper their expectations.
Gutierrez: The 2017 Red Sox are, by virtually any measure, built to win now. Whether that’s in 2017 or the next year, or both, Dombrowski seems to be all-in, perfectly willing to mortgage the team’s future for another championship. It’s an exciting approach, and it should have Sox fans excited. But it also didn’t work for Trader Dave in Detroit, so there’s a cautionary tale there, too. His predecessor, Ben Cherington, took a much more balanced and holistic approach to building the team, keeping prized prospects locked away for future rewards, and working feverishly to exploit market inefficiencies to build a contender on a budget. Cherington won a World Series. But his teams also stunk it up for a couple years. Dombrowski clearly has his eyes on the prize, but will his aggressive approach bear the same fruit? Or will he continue to build an annual contender at the expense of the club’s long-term future? Which approach do fans prefer? Flags are forever, they say, but winning every year ain’t bad either. The Sox got close in 2016. Unless something goes horribly wrong, they should get close in 2017, too. My prediction? Something does go wrong. The Sox win 89 games, earn a wild card berth, but fall short of a title.
Ross: The lineup will definitely suffer a backslide this season with the retirement of Big Papi, though they should still be among the top three AL teams in runs scored — in fact, they should be even money to lead the league again. The rotation, on the other hand, enjoyed an upgrade that offsets a good chunk of Papi’s departure, and they head into the season with six quality arms, albeit half of them with minor health issues. Yes, the bullpen is a cause for concern, but their ERA was just .16 higher than the O’s league-leading figure from 2016, and their .680 OPS allowed was second-best in the AL. With the addition of Thornburg, and later this year, Carson Smith, they should be better. Given that the Yankees look to be at least one more year away, and the Blue Jays and O’s look worse on paper, the East is Boston’s for the taking, and 94 wins should do it easily.Next post: Red Sox Rebuilt: From 2011 to 2017
Previous post: Springfield ’17: A Modern-Day “Homer at the Bat” Lineup